Ally Courtnall gave the UCLA women’s soccer team a pleasant surprise when she walked into the team’s locker room two days before the team left for its third game of the season in South Bend, Ind.
She was back.
Toward the end of last season, the junior defender started losing her passion for soccer. Once the season ended, she made a decision: it was time to call it quits.
“I just really wasn’t into the game anymore,” said Courtnall, who also runs the 200m and 400m for the track and field team. “I lost desire to play … and I wanted to focus on track.”
This didn’t come as a shocker for Courtnall’s parents, Russ and Paris Courtnall, who saw the writing on the wall from their conversations with their daughter.
Knowing it was coming didn’t ease the disappointment of not being able to watch their daughter run down the flanks of the soccer field anymore, but Russ and Paris Courtnall understood that their daughter needed a breather.
“I think mentally she needed a break,” Russ Courtnall said. “She said she hadn’t had a summer off since she was nine years old, and she got to do some things she didn’t normally get to do.”
While the members of the UCLA women’s soccer team were also disappointed about losing one of their fastest players, they too showed support for Ally Courtnall’s decision.
“I was roommates with her, so I got to ask her a ton of questions about it, but I supported her move,” said junior defender Megan Oyster. “But obviously it affected our team a little bit, because we were so upset because she’s such a good player – I mean, she’s one of the best players on our team.”
But first-year coach Amanda Cromwell wasn’t as willing to accept Courtnall’s retirement from the sport.
After hearing that Courtnall was a player “the team definitely wanted back,” Cromwell made the most of fortuitously bumping into Courtnall in Drake Stadium during Cromwell’s first days at UCLA.
And so began a series of text messages and office visits in a process both would describe as a recruitment.
“She wasn’t on the roster on the first day of preseason, so I was still recruiting her come August, so the fact that she’s on the field starting and playing so well is awesome,” Cromwell said. “And in my mind, she’s my first recruit here.”
What finally sealed the deal was one simple question from Cromwell: How would Courtnall feel if she was sitting there watching the Bruins on TV winning a national championship, and she wasn’t a part of it?
“Just sitting there and thinking about that, I was just like, ‘I need to play,’” Courtnall said. “This is something I need to do because I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing I could’ve been a part of that.”
But there was still one last thing she needed before she would lace up those cleats once again – the approval of the team’s leaders.
According to one of the team captains and junior midfielder Sam Mewis, it was an easy decision to make.
“The question was, ‘Do you want her on the field in November and December?’ And it was a unanimous ‘yes,’” Mewis said.
A few hugs from her teammates later, it became clear to Courtnall that her reinstatement was welcomed by the team.
But the harsh physicality of soccer wasn’t as accommodating.
After nine months without touching a soccer ball and a summer free of training, Courtnall said that for the first time in her life, she was out of shape.
“My first practice I was like, ‘I’m about to have a heart attack. … I need to take a break.’ And everyone was just laughing at me because I was so out of breath,” Courtnall said.
But it took her less than a week to prove that she was worth the time Cromwell invested in trying to get her back.
On Sept. 8, with 11 minutes left in the game and the score against Notre Dame tied 0-0, Courtnall came on as a substitute. She fired a shot from range that rattled Notre Dame’s cross bar. The ball ricocheted toward freshman forward Darian Jenkins, who slotted in the goal, and just like that, Courtnall created the goal that won the Bruins the Notre Dame Adidas Invitational.
“When that happened right there and then I was like, ‘Alright, this is a good start. This feels really good. I finally feel like I’m a part of this team – I’m doing something, contributing something,’” Courtnall said. “That was a big thing for me when that happened.”
Courtnall said she found a renewed love for the sport that she first discovered as a 10-year-old playing in Victoria, British Columbia, but more has changed for her this year than just that.
The number on her jersey was once 23 – a tribute to Michael Jordan, an athlete that Courtnall sees as a source of inspiration.
But since her return, she’s traded that number in for one that hits closer to home and also represents her recommitment to being a multi-sport athlete.
Courtnall’s new number, 42, mirrors what former UCLA multi-sport athlete Jackie Robinson once wore on the back of his jersey during his heyday.
A new number, a new attitude – Courtnall is back. And if fathers really do know best, Courtnall can expect to make an impact in the playoffs.
“She always surprises us, but then we sit back and reflect on her life, and ever since she’s been a little kid she’s been determined to be the best that she can be,” Russ Courtnall said. “And her best is exceptional.”